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Published: 22nd Feb
How youth culture in
Britain has changed
Not only have Britain’s
youth tribes spiralled into
new shapes, their genetic
makeup has changed in a fundamental way. We’ve moved from an age which saw one or two
youth tribes in effect at any given time to one where tribes are fragmented and fractured, where
they’re fluid and interchangeable; where tribes bleed into each other and create whole new
groupings, and where changing social and cultural circumstances are mirrored in the make-up
of Britain’s youth tribes. It’s chaos theory in DMs (or hand-scribbles pumps, or Chloe shoes).
The complexity of the beast it exactly the reason we created www.uktribes.com. It’s a way of
breaking down and identifying the different tribes and how they relate to each other. And, of
course, indulging in that most pleasurable of past-times: getting deep in the detail of our nation’s
ultra-sparky youth culture.
A classic round up of youth tribes came at the end of John Hughes’ high school classic, The
Breakfast Club. If we took Molly Ringwald’s observation of geeks, prom queens, freaks and
jocks and pushed them through our own cultural filter we’d end up with a different roll-call:
trendies and trackies, chavs and indie kids. To be able to understand the complex and distinct
ways in which British youth arrange themselves into distinct groups, we’ll need to rewind a
So let’s get back to the basics. Kick-started by groups of proletarian youths refusing to knuckle
under, accept their lot and conform, youth tribes have often been most vibrant during times of
austerity, existing as a reaction against boredom and economic hardship. There’s a class
element that remains true throughout: Britain’s youth tribes have often originated in working
class enclaves, later to be hijacked and absorbed by the middle classes.
The western world was forced to acknowledge the rise of the teenager after America’s rock ‘n’
roll explosion. Britain’s take on rock ‘n’ roll style was a bizarre blend of expensive (near five
times the average weekly wage) Edwardian-style tailored suits, brilliantined DA ‘duck’s arse’
hair and ‘brothel creeper’ crepe shoes. These working class teddy boys reacted against post-
war austerity and cap-doffing by dressing-up, acting flash and adopting American music. Teds
roamed and battles alongside ‘greasers’ and ‘ton-up boys’ (100mph bikers) who aped Brando’s
leather look, adding Belstaff boots and pisspot helmets.
Come the 60s, teenagers and youths found themselves with more disposable income during a
period of post-war optimism, independence and increase international – and particularly
American – imports. The background of prosperity was the fermenting ground for mods, who,
reflecting the mood of the time, rejected nostalgia and dressed in razor-sharp clothes. It’s
proved a perennial look, having been adopted by successive generations from football casuals
to scallies and Britpoppers.
As times changed, so did youth tribes (an accurate barometer of national wealth and attitudes).
By the 70s Britain was struggling economically and increasingly divided. Thus came punk. Out
of that mid-70s earthquake came myriad tribes, born of a hugely creative music and fashion
explosion that gloried in individualism, dramatic gestures and confrontational statements; the
desire to shock or stand out from the crowd. Punk’s real legacy, though, was and still is a
thriving UK independent music scene, DIY culture, charity shop clothing, Joy Division ‘long
coats’ and the fey, lo-fi ‘C86’ indie kids.
Onwards into the 80s, where youth tribes of the past continued to be recycled into new shapes.
The bleakness of the miners’ strike and industrial unrest coincided with Britain’s new wave of
heavy metal (NWOHM), where metallers and bikers were treated to a mass of post-Sabbath,
Purple and Zeppelin rock. Big in the provinces, embroidered denim jackets, bad skin and too-
tight jeans shared youth club speakers with the parallel mod, skinhead and rude boy revivals
which replicated the original dress styles and were later appropriated by Britpop. There were
also new inventions: bubbling out of Yorkshire, specifically Leeds, during the mid-80s came the
enduring goth scene, where German Expressionist poses, death fetishism and black clothing
rules – and still do.
Monochrome changed to day-glo when the ecstasy-fuelled excesses of acid house brought
dancing and partying to the fore, just as some Britons began reaping the benefits of
Thatcherism. Her destruction of the idea of community in favour of individual wealth and mass
privatisation was both backdrop and casual factor in acid-house and rave’s huge popularity.
Boys and girls dressed the same, danced the same, took the same drug and the emphasis was
one of – although not overtly political – anti-Thatcherite community and ‘sharing’. Which in turn
caused its own reaction – the awakening of indie kids from their post-rave slumber and speedy
ascendance in the 00s.
There’s always intense activity in Britain’s youth tribes. Why? It’s a volcanic bubbling that is fed
by our island status, our independence, an eccentric and fractured-but-vibrant national identity
borne of a huge multicultural melting pot, dense population and many regional differences. And
perhaps the infrastructure that punk’s DIY ethos enabled – the fact that there’s endless role
models for young people to do it themselves; to start a club, to form a band, to invent their own
There are other reasons too: the technological advances of the last 50 years have made much
of this possible. We see different things now, we’re exposed to different influences, we can
communicate with people who we’d otherwise never even know about. How could a tribe like
skaters otherwise exist, without skate photography and films like Dogtown’s Z-Boys, Stacey
Peralta’s merchandise and Tony Hawk’s computer games developing worldwide currency?
There’s also the impact of the information revolution, where anyone with a broadband
connection can access information that would previously have taken a lifetime to discover. For
Mick Jagger to strut around with a Muddy Waters LP under his arm took huge effort and serious
connections. Now, anyone can download his entire works within a few hours. Moreover, acid
house (the movement which started in the ghettoes of post-disco Chicago and Detroit and went
on to spawn rave culture) was both the last of a certain kind of monolithic tribe and the first of a
new. It was the last, the end of a lineage, because it had defined membership, because you had
to put effort and energy into tribe membership; because it was a simple way for a significant
proportion of the country to define themselves as ‘us’ not ‘them’. It was the first of the new
because with the monolith were many different sub-tribes, a fragmentation and a desire for
numerous ways of expressing yourself within a mass movement, in many senses, it was also
the first to invite brands on board to play and participate.
Right now, thrillingly, the tribes are numerous, less defined, blurred, yet still distinct movements
in a fast forward-paced youth culture. Lee “we are the teds” (or mods, or punks), communities
exist in smaller pockets and virtual networks. Although mods, skins, punks, metallers and goths
endure through successive generations, newer forms, from cyberpunks to laptop geeks have
appeared then receded like so many waves on the shore. And like waves, tribes always comes
back – albeit with a new wardrobe, new favourite bands and new ideas. Long live Britain’s youth
Former editor of X-Ray and Good For Nothing, Stuart Turnbull is a regular contributor to the